Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology

J. Denny Weaver

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 2 (Spring 2005)

Kenneth R. Chase and Alan Jacobs, eds. Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003.

Given the war in Iraq waged under the banner of “God bless America” by a nation frequently identified as “Christian” with a president who professes himself “Christian,” this book addresses one of the important theological questions of our era. In the introduction, editor Kenneth Chase frames the question in terms of “pragmatic” and “inherency” arguments. The pragmatic argument “links acts of violence with those who claim to be Christians” (10). The inherency argument has two themes. One is Christian insistence on defining good and evil and a God who punishes sets in motion forces that may make Christianity inherently “complicit with violence” (12). The second is sacrifice: “The Judeo-Christian logic requires that a living creature must lose its life for God’s favor to be restored to a guilty human” (12).

The book’s twelve chapters (plus two conversations), revised from presentations at a March 2000 conference at Wheaton College sponsored by the Center for Applied Christian Ethics, work with one or both of these themes. Essays treat the first crusade, the violence of the Conquistadores in Latin and South America, theological opposition to slavery, the motivations and actions of rescuers and opponents of the Nazi holocaust, suggestions for teaching US history from a nonviolent perspective, theological emphases that minimize violence by Christians, and just peacemaking practices that allow pacifists and just war advocates to cooperate without resolving their differences. Perhaps the most intense chapters present Stanley Hauerwas’s argument that Jesus precedes the philosophy of pacifism and its application to John Milbank, who acknowledges that God’s creation contained no original violence but claims that sin makes participation in violence inevitable, whether one abstains from or enters into conflict. The printed Hauerwas-Milbank conversation does not resolve their debate.

The book does not pose the question of Christianity and violence as sharply or as deeply as it might. In the historical arena – the pragmatic argument – beyond a brief mention in Mark Noll’s essay, I would like to see a full chapter on violence done to Native Americans in the settlement of North America, beginning with the New England Puritans, parallel to the story of the Conquistadores in Latin America. To bring racism closer to home, it would be profitable to read about earlier biblical and theological defenses of slavery and segregation in the US as a parallel to the condemnation of violence against Jews in Nazi Germany.

For the inherency argument, the challenge to Christianity is mitigated by limits the editors placed on the analysis of violence in theology. Discussion of the hot-button topic of atonement was circumscribed to include only defenses of the satisfaction theory (16-17). Thus editor Chase argues that if Jesus’ death is sufficient for sin, then we should challenge the idea that killing is necessary to eliminate the last evil “such as Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, or Al Qaeda” (124), and that the righteousness of God’s final judgment means that Christians do not need to seek vengeance. Richard Mouw’s defense of satisfaction atonement argues that it does not promote violence because “in sending Jesus to the cross,” God used a “last resort” remedy for sin in which “the punishment is proportionate to the end being sought,” analogous to the limited use of violence in just war theory; but in any case, Jesus’ submission to unjust violence is not an example for Christians to follow because the “once-for-all theme in the Reformed understanding of atonement” gives it an “inimitability collorary” (165).

I applaud Chase’s nonviolent application of satisfaction atonement, but both his and Mouw’s arguments confirm the intrinsic violence of its imagery. Limiting the discussion to defenses of satisfaction both ignores the developing, wider argument whether God is properly understood as using or sanctioning violence, a divine violence intrinsic to satisfaction atonement, and avoids significant interaction with serious challenges to the violence of satisfaction atonement from black, feminist, womanist, and nonviolence-shaped theologies. Admitting these issues would raise the question of the “inherent” violence of Christianity to a higher level, and would bring additional biblical and nonviolent arguments into the discussion.

This volume makes a substantial contribution, but its answer will satisfy only some readers. It provides food for thought for those concerned about violence who wish to preserve the broad tradition of standard, primarily evangelical theology and an opening for justifiable war. For those desiring a fundamental reassessment of Christianity’s relationship to violence, the book leaves important work yet to do.

J. Denny Weaver, Bluffton University, Bluffton, OH